Bending the Rules

One of my favorite fall traditions is an excursion to Pilsen to see the Day of the Dead exhibit (Dia de los Muertos) at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Lives are grieved for and remembered in special ways through the loving assembly of objects. I am always moved.

This year’s excursion was even more special because a friend was visiting from St. Paul and she was going to experience this unusual collection for the first time.

I wanted our day in Pilsen to be special. Named after the area in Czechoslovakia famous for Pilsner style beer, it’s been the first neighborhood of many immigrant groups as they settled in Chicago. Decades ago, it was home to Eastern Europeans. For quite a few years, Mexicans have been the dominant ethnic group.

Colorful murals adorn the sides of brick houses and corner stores. En route to gentrification, you can spot Starbucks stores next to taquerias. Parking pay boxes have to be fed along 18th Street and other major boulevards.

I did a little research before my friend’s visit. After wandering through the museum, I wanted to take her, and two other friends, to an authentic Mexican bakery for a slice of tres leches cake.

I went online and identified what seemed to be an awesome family run bakery. It was my intention to enjoy tea and split a couple pastries there.

The wonderful aromas of fresh bread, cinnamon, and anise curled up our nostrils as soon as we walked into Panaderia El Acambara. Sweet breads and coffee cakes occupied displays in the center of the store. Racks upon racks upon racks of buttery cookies and flaky empanadas filled the side walls.

I thought they also had tables for patrons to enjoy tea or coffee, but it was only a store.

I studied the selection on the wall. I decided to get a couple dulce de leche empanadas, crescent shaped mini pies filled with a sort of caramel crumble. To bring home, I told myself.

I also asked if there was a place nearby for coffee and tea.

Si. Si… I was directed to a hipster coffee shop that was just down the street, which was good because I had already popped for an hour of parking.

We walked in to find a couple of twenty somethings who had probably been there most of the day.   A thin, pale, aproned barista, waited for our order from behind the counter. He looked at us impatiently as serving us was delaying his scheduled trip to the doorstep for a smoke.

I had every intention of bringing my small white paper bag containing the two dulce de leche empanadas from Panaderia el Alcambaro home with me for a late night snack, but, I looked at the selection of bakeries in the case and had second thoughts.

There were a couple over-sized cookies and four croissants that seemed to predate the last appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Not before my lifetime, but definitely too old to be healthy or enjoyable.

As I ordered herbal tea, I asked the barista if we could eat the pastries I just bought.

We don’t allow food from outside, he said matter-of-factly. I nodded and we sat down for tea and banter.

Pretty soon, knowing that dinner was several hours away and something scrumptious inside my little paper bag was begging to be shared, the four of us started to break off pieces of the sweet little pies and slipped them into our mouths. As chunks of the treat melted, we tried to keep silent, but our eyes shouted with delight.

Our indulgence was not lost on the barista. We couldn’t help ourselves… He saw — but he said nothing.

At first, we broke off pieces of the pastries while they were still in the white paper bag. Then we got bolder, laying the crescents on napkins in the middle of the table and continuing to break off bits leaving a puddle of crumbs.

Ah, each bite was the perfect blend of sweetness and butter.

The thought came up that it made no sense for him to enforce house rules more strictly as the four of us outnumbered the other customers and we all spent money on tea, but someone in his position might choose to be more hard-nosed about it.

My foursome enjoyed our visit to the café, even though we were uneasy, at first, about being called out. People’s actions often defy good sense.

Being under the authority of someone who is willing to bend the rules is no small thing.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Upon learning that I went to the art show at Navy Pier over a recent weekend, a few friends asked me if I saw anything that I especially liked.

They know I love to opinion-ate and considered that I might be an enthusiastic messenger for some budding trend.

Well, I began, there was a lot of colorful blown glass, which I always appreciate, but I can’t think of any special method or material that captivated me.

There was one thing I saw though, I went on, that made my day…and I went on to recount the story…

Upon entering the exhibition space and seeing a seemingly endless cement floor partitioned into 20 or 30 foot carpeted mini galleries, I devised my plan. First, I would take the long aisle to the farthest side, near the little café they set up, and walk my way back to the entrance crisscrossing the shorter aisles.

The exhibition areas were numbered and had ample signage should anyone want to trace their way back for a second look at something. As I didn’t have buying anything in mind, it was simple enough to focus on the ceramics and paintings and sculptures I saw and keep walking

Smaller items sat in well-lit Plexiglas cases. Larger items were positioned against clean walls so they could make bigger impressions. All the objects were displayed to their best advantage.

Besides wearing lanyards or laminated nametags, it was generally easy to spot the artists. They had a certain sense of style. Even if on a budget, their outfit, or streak in their hair, or unusual eyeglass frames seemed to be carefully picked out. It was obvious they cared about how they looked.

I also listen to the banter between visitors.(It’s amusing to hear what someone likes or what they don’t like and why.)

And I like to hear the artists PITCH their work.

Many artists feel very uncomfortable with this, but they are only half-done after they sign a piece. Their work needs to be selected to get into a group show or purchased to be displayed in someone’s home before what they do can be enjoyed.

…So, I had just reached the end of an aisle. I saw a short stack of shallow boxes composed of blonde wood, maybe 20” by 30”, leaning against a faux wall. Each was filled with folds of colored paper, maybe two inches deep, in various hues. The continuous meandering folds gave the pieces extra depth.

I could see that each of the three pieces were renditions of the same idea only in different palettes. Two young artists, Japanese men, wearing dark-framed, narrow glasses and not your father’s type of sports jackets, had successfully drawn a couple, potential buyers, a few steps in from the aisle to look at their work up close.

One of the men held up a piece.

You can hang it this way, he said…

Then he rotated it 90 degrees to the right.

Or this way…

And again, he turned the frame another quarter turn..

Or this way…

The young couple nodded silently as if they were being indoctrinated to a great secret of the universe.

Well of course, when you rotate any piece of abstract art, it shows up differently. It conjures up different moods and associations.

I had to keep from laughing that this bit of information seemed positively revelatory to these potential buyers.  It seemed obvious to me.

But as I left the show, I was grateful for the reminder.

Knowing that there can always be something new in your life when you dare to look at something differently is no small thing.


Pay it Forward

The SOFA show (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) was held at Navy Pier’s exhibition space this past weekend.

While the featured artwork, largely exquisite blown glass and home décor, is beyond my budget, I enjoy walking down the aisles, eager to see if something registers in my brain for surprising whimsy or unadulterated invention.

I planned to meet some friends there on Friday afternoon then go out to dinner as part of one of my gal pal’s birthday celebration. My Friday work schedule got re-arranged late in the week, and I had to forego the art show as a group experience. I met everyone at a neighborhood Greek restaurant for dinner later in the evening.

Between saganaki and kolokithokeftedes (zuchinni fritters), I asked the birthday girl for her thoughts on SOFA highlights.

She explained how the group organized their tour of the space and effused about seeing everything in less than three hours. She threw her admission ticket on the table and looked at me.

“I was gifted a three-day pass as part of a birthday gift. Would you want to go?”

As I graciously accepted the ticket, I started to reflect on the concept of PAYING IT FORWARD.

It’s wonderful at any time to get an unexpected gift. It feels like a bonus when you can see the occasion as being part of a larger phenomena, as a step in the continuous cycle of giving and receiving.

As I took the ticket and slid it into a special compartment in my purse, I considered the exchange of energy.

Nicki received this ticket as a gift, in some ways as recognition how she demonstrated herself to be a good friend over the years.

She offered the ticket to me because she had enjoyed the gift and understood that it still had value to someone, like me, who hadn’t yet been to the show and appreciates displays of creativity.

Yes, she passed it on to me in friendship, but my bigger impression was that she passed it on to someone who would use it.

When we clean our closets of clothes we no longer wear and donate them to different charities, we might want to make some space in our lives, but we’re also taken by the idea of moving resources to the place of greatest need, or greatest appreciation.

While I didn’t make efforts to find someone who might use the pass on the third day of the show, as it got me thinking about paying blessings forward, the initial gesture of generosity continued to echo.

Of course, I’d like to think I would share any windfall that came my way, but there are opportunities everyday to PAY IT FORWARD.

Maybe the most important thing I value and can pay forward is my own good state.

Yes, I still want things that I don’t have, but I feel very fortunate. I have come to value myself more than I have at other times in my life; my wisdom, my imagination, special efforts, my good intentions.

Rather than anger or frustration, anxiety, entitlement or jealously -– I’d like to think I can always share my good energy. I have worked hard at cleaning myself up on the inside. Taking care of one’s own energy then being mindful of how we always pay it forward, whether it’s hopeful and life affirming or bitter, represents how we gift the world with our footprints here.

After spending a few hours at the SOFA Show at Navy Pier Saturday, I took the #66 bus down Chicago Avenue to go to the State Street subway stop.

I locked gazes with a very slight woman just slightly older than me. We glanced at the smart phone occupied millennials around us and the jostled passengers loaded down with over-sized bags from fancy Michigan Avenue stores. We smiled at each other.

She got off the bus one stop before I did. As she walked in front of me on the way to the door, she said, “Have a nice day.”

Looking people that cross my path in the eyes and smiling, consciously sending them kindness and respect, shared humanity, is no small thing.


I recently attended a meditation retreat; a single day dedicated to chanting and meditation, to turning in.

Of course, it can be healthy, in general, to take a break from routines and habitual busyness to do such things. The larger benefits of this day, I imagine, will unfold over time.

The key thrust of the program was to encourage people to meditate. Rather than using meditation for centering or performance enhancement (a focus not ignored in business or sports), my perspective on the true power of meditation is more spiritual.

The goal of meditation, I believe, is to experience existence outside of one’s ego, to let go of one’s dependence on circumstances in order to be happy and to identify with the limitless and eternal rather than defining who we are based on politics or class, gender or profession.

Whether this approach to meditation is of interest to you or if you are curious about meditation to improve your golf swing or lessen anxiety, it’s common for beginning meditators to start with their BREATH.

Ah breathing…

It sounds so simple, and yet, as we often learn in a level one yoga class, many of us don’t breathe correctly. It’s hard at forty or older to allow your belly to fully expand when you’ve spent most of your life holding your stomach in.

When a well-meaning meditation instructor follows up on tips for how to sit by saying, Watch your breath, my battle with my breath kicks in to a higher gear.

I’m not a visual person to begin with. I have to play around with any metaphorical references to golden particles of light filling my lungs, filling all sorts of body cavities, and then being expelled in long exhalations. I can’t seem to conjure up the intended visuals but I get the gist of instruction.

Be conscious of your life force. Be aware of natural boundaries, with insides and outsides. Be present to the sensation of these boundaries melting away.

Breathe in deeply. Let your breath out slowly…

It’s not that I take breathing for granted.

I have two sisters that had experiences with lung cancer. One sister, older by seven years or so, after diagnosis five years ago, had two lobes of one lung removed. She had to re-learn how to breathe with less capacity. Another sister, only one year older, died 16 years ago.

As children, that sister, unhappy to share a bedroom with her snoring younger sister, used to pose a strange rhetorical question to me, Must you breathe? 

Was she merely tired of listening to the unconscious waves of my respiration? Was she upset at me just for being alive? Was she questioning my right to occupy space on this planet as she questioned whether air should fill my lungs?

No, I never had an easy relationship with my own breath. I still find myself holding my breath when I’m excited or deep in concentration. I’m aware of habits to take in just barely as much air as I need, not as much as life might be offering.

….But I want to experience samadhi, this state of total absorption in both the present and the eternal. I want to lose preoccupation with accomplishments and judgments and just BE.

From others before me who have had the same goal, I understand this place to be at the intersection of where one’s breath meets the heart, the heart of everything. There are no road signs, but I trust that I’ll know it when I get there.

Respiration keeps the body alive, but maybe, more importantly, breathing with this goal, gives life meaning.

Even though I’ve been at it for sixty years, I guess I have to practice breathing.

First thing in the morning (before I have tea and take India out for her walk), when the sound is turned down during a commercial break, or when I’m wiping my kitchen countertop –- It’s a good thing that I can practice every day.

Recognizing the importance of breathing, deeply and CONSCIOUSLY, even while the basic function occurs automatically, is no small thing.